Following a gluten-free diet is increasing in popularity among many individuals who believe that it will help them lose weight, treat autism, improve digestive issues, increase energy, or feel healthier overall. With an abundance of gluten-free options on the grocery store shelves (labeled as “gluten-free”), many may assume that it must be a “good thing”. Contrary to popular belief, just because a food is gluten-free does not mean it’s healthy or good for you. There are good reasons to adhere to a gluten-free diet and good reasons to not restrict yourself to gluten-free eating.
What is gluten?
Gluten is a large protein complex that is naturally found in wheat, rye, barley, and some oats. When gluten enters the bloodstream, it causes the immune system to become overactive. This results in damages to the intestinal lining and different organs in the body, leading to a decreased ability to absorb nutrients from food resulting in uncomfortable symptoms such as abdominal pain, diarrhea, constipation, and gas and bloating, and many other possible symptoms.
Who will benefit from going gluten-free?
Individuals diagnosed with celiac disease, gluten sensitivities or intolerances will benefit the most from a gluten-free diet.
Celiac disease – A chronic autoimmune disease that is triggered by the consumption of gluten which damages the lining of the small intestine, even with the consumption of trace amounts of gluten. When the small intestine is damaged, it will lose the ability to absorb important nutrients such as iron and calcium which can result in severe nutritional deficiencies, such as iron-deficiency anemia. If left untreated, it can increase the risk of type 1 diabetes, dermatitis, and osteoporosis. Celiac disease does have a genetic component. There are blood tests that look for specific antibodies, and genetic testing to determine if a person carries a specific variant in HLA-DQ2 or -DQ8 genes. For an estimated one percent of the population with celiac disease, a strict, lifelong gluten-free diet is essential.
Non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) – A gluten sensitivity (or gluten intolerance) that produces symptoms that are like celiac disease but without damages to the intestines. Unlike celiac disease, it is not an autoimmune disorder and does not appear to have a genetic component. There is no diagnostic test for this condition. It is usually reported for individuals who have negative test results for wheat allergy and celiac disease. The dietary recommendation is the same as for celiac disease – a gluten-free diet.
Who will not benefit from going gluten-free?
Individuals that will not benefit very much from a gluten-free diet are those who:
Want to lose weight. Many gluten-free products available in your local grocery store are made from refined white or brown rice flour, tapioca and potato starch which break down into simple sugars in your body. Over consumption of sugar can lead to weight gain, prediabetes, diabetes, and inflammation. Also, gluten-free products are often high in fat and low in fiber which can lead to constipation and weight gain. The healthier and easier way to lose weight is by eating more fruits and vegetables and less processed foods.
Want to eat healthier – Eliminating gluten from your diet is probably not one of the ways to start eating healthier. When you stop eating wheat, rye, barley, and the other grains that contain gluten, you are eliminating some key nutrient sources. According to a recent article reviewing the nutritional profiles of gluten-free diets, there are deficiencies in certain nutrients such as fiber, folate and other B vitamins, iron, potassium, and zinc . This can put some individuals at risk for nutritional imbalance, especially women who are pregnant or may become pregnant. Although you can take good quality dietary supplements to replace these missing nutrients, nutrients are best absorbed from the foods you eat.
Have a genetic susceptibility to gluten – Individuals who has completed genetic testing may discover that they have gene variants that increases their risk of gluten intolerance. There are several genetic variants that are associated with a person’s risk for gluten intolerance. However, genetic predisposition does not mean you will experience sensitivities to gluten, or you will develop the disease, it means that you have a higher risk of getting it.
Gluten-free eating does not equal healthy and it may not be right for you. Before you head to the store to buy gluten-free foods, the wisest thing is to ask yourself – How do you feel after eating foods containing gluten? Are you having any negative reactions? If you do not have celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity, then there is no good reason to consume only gluten-free foods. However, if you are experiencing symptoms such as diarrhea, abdominal pain, nausea, bloating and gas, and constipation, it is important to talk to your doctor. Once you have a definitive diagnosis for any form of gluten sensitivity, it is a good idea to seek proper nutritional counseling to minimize the risk of any nutritional deficiency.